A Role to Reclaim: Canada as Honest Broker

Speaking on Middle East issues at an Ottawa synagogue in April, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae noted that the current impasse in peace talks between Israel and Palestinians offers an opening for constructive Canadian engagement. On his recent trips to the region, he reported, senior political and military figures on both sides conceded privately that a two-state solution is the only viable option. However, none of them are able or willing to state such a view openly. That’s why, in Rae’s view, Canadian diplomacy could make a real difference now: namely, by convening influential Israelis and Palestinians for off-the-record discussions of what a two-state solution might look like. While the public impasse lasts, informal talks might achieve incremental progress by bringing the two sides’ visions closer together.

Of course, Rae was under no illusions that the Harper government would entertain any such idea. Since taking office, this government has heaped scorn on what it perceives as the weak and indecisive nuances of diplomacy, preferring instead to advance foreign policy through military ventures and pronouncements about good and evil. These tendencies are evident in its unconditional backing of Israel as a beacon of democracy amid a sea of despots and terrorists. And, in a rather less elevated and more politicized vein, they’re evident in the government’s ongoing contempt for its Liberal predecessors’ aspiration that Canada play an ‘honest broker’ role in international affairs, including in the Middle East.

“The key issue in Canada’s abandonment of the honest broker role is the potential contribution to incremental peacemaking that’s been lost as our Middle East partisanship has grown.”

In a November 2010 speech, for instance, Prime Minister Harper boasted of his willingness to take political knocks for the sake of defending Israel: “[W]hether it is at the United Nations or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being even-handed and to excuse oneself with the label of honest broker.” The first part of this statement is on-target about the ubiquity of anti-Israel rhetoric in international forums, but the second half is profoundly misleading. It suggests that previous Liberal governments, in embracing the role of honest broker while supporting Israel, were acceding to evil in search of popularity and a pleasing self-image.

This trashing of a noble diplomatic role is reprehensible. Acting as an honest broker simply means being an impartial mediator to help third parties resolve their disputes. Doing so in the globally-charged Middle East conflict could hardly be more worthwhile. And it in no way requires an amoral indifference to abuses or wrongs. While the mediator must be trusted by both sides to act in good faith and without bias, that’s compatible with taking public stances on particulars of the disputing parties’ claims and conduct.

One reason why the Prime Minister can get away with deriding this honest broker role, however, is that even its supporters have tended to distort its meaning. Perhaps in response to the imperative for ‘sound bite’ brevity, Liberal foreign ministers have often associated it with ‘balance’ or ‘even-handedness’ in positions toward Israel and the Palestinians. Such terms suggest that an amoral equal weighting of claims on any issue is a diplomatic virtue in itself.

Of course, that’s not true—and it’s not, correctly understood, what being an honest broker is about. The late Toronto Star columnist James Travers was particularly lucid on this point. In lamenting the Harper government’s abandonment of a potential honest broker role for Canada by declaring partisanship toward Israel during its 2007 attacks on Gaza, he wrote: “Not taking sides does not mean not taking a stand. Unequivocal support for Israelis and their safety does not require equivocation on Palestinian human rights and political freedom.” That’s exactly right.

Another reason why the Conservative government can get away with abandoning nuance and deriding the honest broker ideal is that doing so can produce clear political ‘wins’ domestically. Rather less political mileage can come from the activity of honest brokerage, which is intrinsically a behind-the-scenes activity. In the words of a 2006 Globe and Mail editorial mocking critics of the Prime Minister’s pro-Israel partisanship, “[n]o recent Canadian prime minister has been even a bit player in settling the region’s quarrels.” Quite so; honest brokerage isn’t an activity that wins prime ministers the glory of a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, presided over by a beaming President Clinton.

And yet, as James Travers noted in 2010, previous Canadian governments were able to see the value of diplomatic mediation despite its low profile: “In the past, this country has played its bit part well to knowing applause. It earned trust as an honest broker and worked discreetly behind the scenes on solving vexed problems. For his own reasons and political purpose, Harper chose to torch that reputation and that useful contribution.” The key issue in Canada’s abandonment of the honest broker role isn’t Canada’s reputation, of course; it’s the potential contribution to incremental peacemaking that’s been lost as our Middle East partisanship has grown.

Worse still, the Harper government’s contempt for diplomacy and honest brokerage is bound up with a rhetorical heightening of foreign antagonisms for political effect. In an interview this March, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird declared, “Canada’s not going to be an honest broker between an international terrorist organization and a liberal democracy, when the great struggle of our generation is the struggle between liberal democracies and international terrorist organizations.” This statement casts any party at odds with Israel, any party with whom Israel might conceivably enter into mediation, as the embodiment of evil.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Dayan famously said “You don’t make peace with your friends; you make it with your enemies.” Baird’s words effectively turn Israel’s enemies into evildoers with whom no peace can be made. It’s appalling for Canada to do so in the name of pro-Israel solidarity. With luck, our government will come to understand that such solidarity and the honest broker role can—and should—go hand in hand.

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